Stuck at home, SJU fans make major noise

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St. John's alum Bernie Weber '67 celebrates the Jake Theis touchdown that gave St. John's a 7-6 halftime lead.
Photo by Adam Johnson, D3football.com

By Adam Johnson

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. – With three chartered airplanes, filled with Johnnie faithful, departing Minneapolis on Friday it was evident that St. John's would have a fan base in Salem, Va., for the 2003 Stagg Bowl.

And as Johnnie fans lined up at 9:30 a.m. outside Majors Sports Café in this Minneapolis suburb, it became obvious that the fan base included not only those in Salem but thousands gathered in their homes and at sports bars across the Midwest and the country. With the help of 1997 St. John's graduate Sean Conrad, who arranged the gathering at Majors, Johnnie fans had a warm, spacious restaurant and a TV in every corner to watch their beloved team.

"I had no idea the crowd would be this big," Conrad admitted after the game.

It was around 8 a.m. on Saturday morning when Majors general manager David Soos got a call from his staff informing him that some fans, in red, were throwing a football and tailgating in the company lot.

"So, let ‘em," Soos responded. He wasn't about to rain on St. John's parade.

The crowd, growing restless as they stood outside in the cold temperatures, let out a cheer as the doors opened 15 minutes before the 10 a.m. CT kickoff and fans rushed into the restaurant like Christmas shoppers after the last Hokey Pokey Elmo.

Photo by Adam Johnson, D3football.com
Fans begin to line up a half-hour before game time.

Friends searched out their own spots and TV to watch the game. Many settled in a room with one huge projection screen TV and one smaller TV placed in each of the four corners. Majors' staff put together a special menu for Johnnie fans including the "Stagg Bowl Beer Special" which few people turned down.

Fans continued to trickle in through the opening kickoff until all corners of the restaurant were covered in red. If you read the papers, the fans should have been wearing black, as most expected Mount Union to leave the Johnnies for dead by halftime.

Through the first quarter, the mood was tense as both teams traded possessions. When Mount Union wide receiver Randell Knapp dropped a wide-open pass at just over four minutes into the game the crowd let out a collective sigh of relief. There was definite excitement in the air as the Johnnies were the first team to keep Mount Union off the scoreboard in the first quarter all season.

Mount Union wasted no time scoring in the second quarter as they punched in the opening score at 14:57. There was little time for Johnnie fans to sulk as senior Cam McCambridge blocked the PAT to hold the score to 6-0.

Jeremy Goltz's interception at the 4:03 mark of the second quarter got the crowd on their feet and in unison started their traditional "S-J-U" chant.

As the Johnnies sat on Mount Union's 14-yard line with three seconds remaining in the half, fans became coaches all suggesting how to handle the situation – kick the field goal or go for the touchdown and momentum swing. There were boosters for each play but most wanted the field goal.

Johnnie alum Doug Imholte agreed with coach John Gagliardi in going for the touchdown but his friend, former St. John's soccer player Joe Meyer thought the field goal was safer.

"He's a soccer guy," Imholte said. "He always wants to kick it."

St. John"s Alumni Board president Dan McDermott also thought the field goal was the way to go. "We wanted the field goal," he said as he sat with a group of friends. "But that's why we don"t have 413 career wins."

Gagliardi, defying all logic, called a screen pass to running back Jake Theis, who isn't known for running over tacklers. He caught the ball with one man to beat and bulldozed over him and into the end zone. The PAT made it 7-6 and sent the crowd into a frenzy.

Over halftime fans reloaded with beers and appetizers and gave their predictions for the second half. Long time Johnnie supporter Bernie Weber, a 1967 graduate, predicted a Johnnie victory.

"Defense is gonna win the game," he said. "We"re just outplaying them."

Weber should have a good idea after watching so many games over the years. "I got the trophy for 350 wins," Weber says about seeing a good chunk of Gagliardi's victories.

Photo by Adam Johnson, D3football.com
Katie Liz, Brian Roers, Katie Roers and John Powell are all smiles at halftime.

McDermott's friend Dave Roy also predicted a Johnnie victory saying, "I just think they (Mount Union) are doubting themselves."

Soos didn't know much about who might come out on top but he knew one thing for sure about the Johnnie fans – they were the best he'd ever seen.

"They are louder and larger than any Vikings fans we've had this season," Soos said. "You hear a roaring cheer for a big tackle or interception and then when they score it is just ear piercing – it sounds like the Dome."

With two quarters remaining, Soos had yet to hear the Johnnies at their loudest. The crowd cheered as Brandon Keller's field goal in the third quarter pushed the lead to four but they would go wild on two plays in the fourth quarter that blew the game open.

The Johnnies opened the fourth quarter with the ball and the momentum. Mount Union had never trailed in the fourth quarter in a Stagg Bowl or trailed in the fourth quarter at all since they played John Carroll on Sept. 22, 2001, so the Johnnies had the Purple Raiders in unfamiliar territory.

With 13:34 to go in the game Blake Elliott took the hand off from Ryan Keating and hit the line of scrimmage. He spun off the initial tackler and darted through the defense 51 yards to the end zone. The place went nuts! Chants of "Blake, Blake, Blake" filled the air and Johnnie fans started to realize that the victory was within reach.

Mount Union responded by marching the ball down to the St. John"s 1-yard line and looked poised to bring the score to within a field goal. Forced to pass after being stopped for no gain on the two previous plays, Mount Union went to the air and it cost them the game.

St. John's sophomore defensive back Mike Zauhar jumped in front of Knapp and caught it on the goal line in stride. He tucked it away and went 100 yards untouched down the sideline for the touchdown and all but sealing the victory for St. John's.

Fans jumped out of their seats, stood on their chairs, hugged, gave high fives and then started the kiss of death cheer.

"OVER-RATED," they chanted in unison as Keller kicked the nail in the coffin to make it 24-6.

Three Johnnie fans hoisted Brian Roers in the air. As they held his feet and arms he rolled off 24 pushups to the count of the crowd.

With 4:03 to play the ESPN2 cameras panned to Mount Union quarterback Jesse Burghardt with his head in his hands and the Johnnie crowd let out a sarcastic, "Awww" as if they were having trouble feeling bad for a kid who ended his college career at 55-1.

Fans continued to chant different things throughout the rest of the game as the teams traded field position.

At 1:51 "S-J-U" started up again followed by "OVER-RATED" at 1:23. As the final seconds ticked away Johnnie fans rose to their feet. Those who had indulged heavily in the "Stagg Bowl Beer Special" stood on chairs and tables. When the clock hit 0:00 one last "S-J-U" chant filled the air. As Gagliardi was stopped for his postgame interview a dead silence fell over the crowd to hear the legend talk. Laughter broke out as he told sideline reporter Dave Ryan that St. John's, "has had a pretty good team since before he was probably born."

It was classic John and as fans departed it was obvious that the 2003 season was a St. John's classic.

Maintenance in progress.
Dec. 9: All times Eastern
Mount Union 43, at UW-Oshkosh 40
Box Score Recap Recap Photos
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 24, Brockport 0
Box Score Recap Photos
Dec. 15: All times Eastern
Mount Union 12, at Mary Hardin-Baylor 0
@ Salem, Va.
Video Box Score Recap Photos